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Trustees Turned Fundraisers… First Steps
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Trustees who really enjoy fundraising are few and far between. Asking strangers or friends for money challenges social norms, it’s outside most people’s experience, and it carries with it the possibility of rejection. It is understandable why only a few people take to it naturally and the rest need help in this important area of trustee responsibility. Yet trustees, as part of their organizational commitment, understand an opera company’s needs and appreciate the critical differences that contributions make. Most board members genuinely want to help raise money and wish they could solicit gifts with the comfort levels and confidence they believe they need for effectiveness.

Through their enthusiasm for the opera companies they support, trustees are, in fact, fundraisers in the making. For starters, their active participation and voice on behalf of their respective companies are fundraising statements of support in and of themselves. With thoughtful scripting, a bit of practice, and the supplemental tools provided by staff, trustees have the potential to fundraise successfully while enjoying the process along the way.

Fundraising, or donor cultivation in the larger context, takes many forms. As with most challenges, practice makes us better. A few successes, no matter how small, frequently propel one to not only do more but also to want to raise the stakes! Where is a good place to start? As a meaningful first step, a trustee might consider assisting their development department’s direct mail efforts by providing his or her personal list, or at least a portion of it, and working closely with the company on its use.

Whether the list is comprised of business associates or social contacts, personal lists from board members definitely generate a more positive response to fundraising appeals. At one company, end-of-year direct mail solicitations that included board lists yielded an increase of 25–30 percent in the amount raised annually. In years when the board lists were not provided, returns dropped accordingly.

Trustee fundraising is at all times a partnership with staff. Once the board member has agreed to provide his or her list there are a number of responsibilities for both parties that determine success, but the bulk of the time and labor usually falls to the staff.

Two key responsibilities rest with the trustee: updating the personal list, which can be time-consuming depending on its condition, and the personalization of the letters. Updating the list at the outset is important because it reduces lost opportunities, confusion, post office returns, and further time-consuming research. Once this is accomplished, staff can “run with the project.” The confidentiality of the list must be respected by staff; it rests with them to ensure names are not inappropriately used for subsequent mailings.

Staff must assume the trustee is very busy and be prepared to not only do all the work, but to conduct all steps with efficiency and precision. Trustees should rely on the staff for overall content; once a draft is complete, a staff member sends the solicitation letter to the trustee for approval. At this point, the trustee can tweak the language for true personalization.

All letters prepared by staff need to be carefully reviewed for accuracy, salutations, correct name spellings, etc. Establish at the outset which contact salutations should be first and/or last name, i.e., Dear John or Dear Mr. Smith. In the latter case, the first name should be written next to it by the trustee. This touch, along with a signature and a short message about the worthiness of the cause, personalizes the solicitation. The staff then takes the letters back for stuffing and mailing.

It is essential that staff notify the trustee immediately of any responses generated by his or her list. This is easily done by e-mail on the day each gift is received. By thanking contacts right away by phone, e-mail, or a handwritten note, trustees will make their contacts feel properly acknowledged and appreciated. A formal thank you letter with the appropriate tax information comes from the company. The donor is thanked twice.

Many trustees who participate in direct mail solicitations in this way frequently get “hooked.” It can bring out people’s best competitive instincts, inspiring them to do better (raise more) next time. Through the experience of personally assisting the opera company’s fundraising program, and witnessing new and increased gifts as a direct result of personalized efforts, trustees can not only find a source of tremendous gratification, but take the first tangible steps toward leaving their fear of fundraising behind.

At OPERA America’s Annual Conference in Miami, April 25–29, we are offering a one-day pre-conference seminar, “The Essentials of Fundraising.” The all-day program is designed to assist all those who find themselves searching for funding but with no experience. The basic aspects will be introduced and discussed. Separately, “Preparing and Motivating Board Members to Fundraise” is scheduled for Friday, April 27, 2–3:30 p.m.. This panel discussion comprised of successful fundraising trustees and development professionals will, we believe, attract considerable interest.

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